Ohio Supreme Court Elections: The Good, The Bad & the Really Ugly

First of all, I want to congratulate Ohio Daily Blog’s long-time friend, Judge Bill O’Neill, for his election as an associate justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. I want to make it clear that I consider this to be an unmitigated positive. While some people I know have griped about their perception that he is not pro-choice, challenges to any anti-choice bills passed by our legislature and signed by our governor are going to the federal courts, not the state supreme court.

The biggest unbalance on the Ohio Supreme Court is one that Bill referred to in his campaign slogan — “Money and judges don’t mix.” It’s the overwhelming tendency of that court in recent years to strongly prefer the rights of big corporate interests, especially those who have donated to their campaigns, to the rights of ordinary citizens. With his refusal to accept any campaign donations and his long history as an advocate for labor, O’Neill brings to the court the ability to balance the interests of average working people and small businesses with those of the big money that funds state supreme court campaigns.

Unfortunately, he’ll be doing it pretty much alone.

Yvette McGee Brown, who was appointed to the court in January 2011 by former Governor Ted Strickland, lost her bid for retention to a grossly underqualifed candidate who was rated Not Qualified by the bar associations. But her name is Sharon Kennedy. It’s clear to me from having looked at a lot of voted ballots while working at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections that many voters assumed a candidate named Kennedy was the Democrat. (Judicial candidates are not identified by party). That leaves the state supreme court still 6-1 Republican.

This is where I’m going to have to disagree with Bill a little bit. I DO think his name was a factor (although not the only one) in his election. I’m sure plenty of people went down the ballot and ticked off the Irish names. Every candidate who won his/her state supreme court race had an Irish name.

Yes, I’m sure his message about money and judges had SOME impact, although I’m more depressed than ever about the baffling way many people vote for judges. I think he was also helped by the fact that he has run statewide for the court twice before so more people know who he is. Candidates often don’t win on their first try.

Anyone who has read Ohio Daily Blog for a while knows what I think about the way the Ohio Democratic Party approaches state supreme court races — and I think they need to take some of the blame for Justice Brown’s loss. I was ready to scream if I heard someone at a Democratic event say one more time “We have to support President Obama, Senator Sherrod Brown, Yvette McGee Brown for state supreme court … and the rest of the ticket.” It was like they were running only one person, even though there were contests for three seats.

They barely contested Republican Justice Terrence O’Donnell’s seat. First they had an unknown candidate who dropped out back in the spring. They went months without replacing him until finally, several months before the election, they anointed state senator Mike Skindell. He was an excellent choice, but how can a candidate who has never run outside of the west side of Cuyahoga County build statewide name recognition in such a short time? He can’t.

O’Neill entered the primary without the blessing of the party and he won overwhelmingly against the Ohio Democratic Party’s chosen candidate (a candidate who would have been a sure loser.) And it’s like ever since they’ve been sulking, acknowledging O’Neill as little as possible. That was like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

What if they had linked Brown and O’Neill (and Skindell) together in a coordinated campaign, letting each candidate benefit from whatever coattails the others had? What if more voters who preferred O’Neill for whatever reason had seen his name perpetually linked to Brown’s and increasingly realized that just being named Kennedy does NOT make you a good Democrat? What if voters went into the voting booth linking the names together and voting for all three?

O’Neill is the first Democrat to win election to the state supreme court since 2000 — and he did it pretty much all on his own (with the help of his devoted volunteers of course). I hope the ODP will do some serious soul-searching in the wake of Justice Brown’s loss — a real loss to the people of Ohio, and one that shouldn’t have happened. It’s time to come up with a new and more effective game plan for balancing the Ohio Supreme Court.

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